Early adulthood is a time of great excitement. We perceive the future as infinite and brimming with opportunities and success. It’s a phase of intense experimentation. Midlife is considered as ages from 40 through 55, with some wiggle room on either side. Midlife presents a completely different story. The experimentation is behind us and our identity enjoys some stability. We may have bought a house, gotten married, had children, and held down a stable job for a few years. Midlife, then, is not very tumultuous, and it’s a period where we have “settled down” in our routines.
You might wonder if midlife is so secure and stable, how come people experience a midlife crisis? How could a period of calm induce a crisis? You might even be afraid that your spouse might be going through a midlife crisis. To help you figure this out, we first need to dissect this idea of midlife crisis.
What is a Midlife Crisis?
In early adulthood, we are usually focused on what we must aim to achieve in the next 5 years. We routinely ask ourselves “Where do I see myself in the next 5 years?”
In midlife, the gears turn, and we have to reckon with our own mortality. We see old age approaching and think “How can I make the best of the healthy years I have left ahead of me?”. For most people, this is a difficult question to answer, because it feels like there is so much we want to do but now there is a looming deadline. We look both forward and back. We start recalibrating our long-held beliefs, and our fundamental assumptions and reinterpret our past experiences with new insights. We may start restructuring our identity and reorienting our behavior.
Causes of Midlife Crisis
Our identity is constructed through our status within our society and our relationship with others that surround us. We have certain roles to play, and these roles structure our anticipations and plans for the future. We have a mental calendar through which we judge whether life events and transitions are “on time”. A rupture occurs in our identity if we unexpectedly lose a role that we play or an important event occurs that we didn’t anticipate. This may be subtle, such as gaining weight, losing some of our vitality, developing age-related illnesses, and witnessing signs of aging such as wrinkles on our skin, or gray hair.
There are deeper changes occurring as well:
- Our job may not have turned out to be as rewarding or fulfilling as we had imagined. We may be facing career uncertainties as our employers downsize our structure. A change in the career or even the pace of the career – whether it becomes more demanding and challenging or becomes easier with less involvement and power – can make us feel ambushed and unprepared.
- Our children may have left for college, and as they gain autonomy and become independent, we may find the loss of our role as a parent difficult to cope with. Since parenting is a demanding and involving job, parents tend to feel lonely and without direction, once the children move out.
- Understanding our own mortality is also an emotionally taxing experience and it can be difficult to grapple with the fear of our demise.
- Loss of a loved one, a divorce, or the disability our parents might experience due to old age can all exacerbate the feeling of disorientation and induce a kind of existential panic. These events can severely drain our emotional resources and can lead to grief that is hard to overcome.
If your spouse has recently experienced any of these above events, they may be going through a midlife crisis. While these events can help map the contours of the crisis, there are also certain symptoms associated with a midlife crisis that you can look for.
Symptoms of Midlife Crisis
- Decline in life satisfaction: A midlife crisis can make life feel inadequate. It can make one feel like the best years are behind you, and that growing older implies boredom. While this might not be factually true, if your spouse is going through a crisis they may perceive it to be so.
- Feelings of purposelessness: They may also be feeling that life has no purpose and that there is no clear direction ahead. It can manifest as a desire to quit the job or shut down the business, or as anxiety about the future and constant worrying.
- Unwarranted self-doubt: Your spouse might be fraught with doubt even if they are excelling in their profession. They may start questioning their decisions, including decisions they took in the past. They might be obsessing over what life might have looked like if they had done this or that differently.
- Dissatisfaction with relationships: The crisis can lead to emotional turmoil and the person may start isolating themselves. They may become less involved in family affairs, neglect their responsibilities, and in some cases, they may even start resenting their spouse and seek other potential partners. If your spouse has become distant for no apparent reason, it could be because they are experiencing a midlife crisis.
- Unusual concern about appearance: Midlife is a transition to old age. It is also a transition to more maturity, but for some people, it can feel like a loss of attractiveness. If someone’s self-esteem is tied to their good looks or how others perceive them, this phase may make them feel insecure. In such cases, people start obsessing over every little physical detail that they think is a sign of being “old”. This can manifest in many ways — plucking gray hair, spending too much time on grooming, suddenly buying a gym membership, or getting cosmetic treatments done.
- Persistent restlessness or fatigue: Excessive introspection or rumination can take a toll on one’s psyche. Anxiety about the future can make the person restless in their quest to find a direction or resolve their psychological discomfort. It could also deplete their energy and cause unusual fatigue that is not related to any health issues. As a result, they may feel overwhelmed with lethargy and have trouble performing their routine tasks.
- Dip in motivation: The crisis can lead a person to adopt a pessimistic outlook on life. As a result, they may lose interest in activities they used to enjoy. They may give up their hobbies and abandon their personal and professional ambitions. A drop in passion can lead them to turn down opportunities they had been eagerly awaiting for a long time. They may even repeatedly question the meaning of life and ponder other existential questions.
- Decline in sexual desire: The distress caused by the crisis can also strain the intimacy between a couple. Your spouse may turn down your initiations of physical intimacy, or they might seem uninterested during sex. They may also lose their romantic bent and not express their love and affection as often as they used to.
How Can You Help?
If your spouse is going through a midlife crisis, you do not have to watch helplessly as they struggle. Actively supporting them through this difficult phase could play a key role in how they resolve their inner conflict. You can be their ally in many ways:
- Listen without judgment: If your partner shares their distress with you, you should listen to them with an open mind and without judgment. You should provide them with reassurance and comfort and let them know that they can discuss anything with you. Initially, it may be a good idea to let them share their thoughts and worries without confronting them or offering them advice.
- Discuss getting professional help: A midlife crisis can raise difficult questions and throw the mind into disarray. Your partner may be feeling lost and not know where to start. Therapy can help alleviate the distress and formulate a plan to tackle all the important questions in a strategic manner. A mental health professional can provide a safe space for honest discourse, allowing your partner to assess the situation in a calm and thoughtful way. Therapy can turn a midlife crisis into a midlife transition.
- Share useful resources: Encourage your loved one to do things that they enjoy, and it may also be helpful for them to keep a journal where they record their thoughts and feelings. Remind them of the wonderful opportunities that lie ahead and encourage them to embrace new interests and experiences. Midlife can be a time of profound change, and your partner may want to adopt a lifestyle that is healthier – both mentally and physically. Empower their good choices and tread with them on their path to self-discovery.
We Can Help!
MHThrive provides Individual Therapy, Couples and Marriage Counseling, and Family Therapy at our locations in Katy, The Woodlands, and the Clear Lake area of Houston, Texas. We also provide telehealth therapy for anyone who resides within the State of Texas. To schedule an appointment with one of the MHThrive therapists, contact us at 713-477-0333 or visit www.mhthrive.com to learn more.
If you or someone you know is experiencing any mental health or substance abuse issues, New Dimensions can help. Our team of experienced therapists and psychiatrists can help you overcome these challenges and help you develop the skills you need to thrive. To schedule a complementary assessment or to find out more about our programs, contact us at 1-800-685-9796.
Online Treatment Programs provides Teletherapy Partial Hospitalization and Intensive Outpatient Programs allowing participants to receive intensive therapy with our licensed therapists and psychiatrists without having to leave home. If you or someone you know is struggling to overcome depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, trauma, panic attacks, PTSD, alcoholism, drug abuse, or other mental health or addiction issues, we can help. To schedule a complementary assessment or to find out more about our teletherapy programs, contact us at 1-800-685-9796.